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Spring Has Sprung

by Tova Horwitz

Between February and March, there is an explosion of miraculous color all over Israel, from north צָפוֹן to south דָרוֹם. Spring אביב has arrived, and with it the wildflowers פרחי בר including the כלנית anemone, iris איריס, cyclamen רקפת, narcissus נרקיס, lupine תורמוס, and daisy חִנָנִית which are in full magical bloom. The wildflowers and fruit tree blossoms like the almond שקד and cherry דוּבדְבָן trees are indeed a delicious glorious visual treat, with many Israelis of all ages embarking outdoors to the country’s parks and countryside to glimpse a view and snap a photo of the seasonal blooms.

While many people take this yearly ritual – going out to see the fields of red anemones in southern israel or the purple Irises of the Gilboa – as a given, it was not too long ago that Israel’s wildflowers were actually on the brink of extinction. In the early years of the state up until legislation was first initiated in 1964, Israel’s wildflowers (which number an incredible approximately 2,500 species!) were widely picked. People plucked the flowers both for personal pleasure to add beauty to their homes and gardens as well as for market where they were sold on the streets.

Fortunately, thanks to the combination of timely legislation forbidding both the picking and selling of wildflowers as well as a simply genius marketing campaign by Israel’s environmental agencies, the flowers were ultimately saved. The campaign was wildly successful even though it lacked funding, because the gorgeous images of the flowers spread across educational pamphlets and posters spoke for themselves. The campaign was aimed at the country’s youth, kids in kindergartens and schools, who would sternly tell their oblivious parents that picking flowers was a big no-no. With the slogan צא‏ לנוף אך אל קטוף “go out to the landscape, but do not pick” (in Hebrew it rhymes – “Tzeh lanof akh al tiktof”), the campaign succeeded in changing the public’s behavior and mindset from that of picking the flowers to that of enjoying the flowers’ beauty in their natural landscape.

Fortunately for us today, the wildflowers were saved! No worries – if you seek to bring the wild beauty into your home you can do so without causing any harm to the wildflowers. Take a trip to Kedma, a south-central village about an hour drive from both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where over Passover פסח for a nominal price you can pick your own flowers from over 100 varieties of buttercups נוריות. Create your own unique bouquet to take home and add a gorgeous splash of color to your home – perfect for the holiday חג!

4 reasons why a preschooler may be your best Hebrew teacher ever

By Tova Horwitz

Are you visiting Israel or maybe you are an oleh (new immigrant)? If so, then you are most likely very familiar with the experience of speaking Hebrew with an obvious foreign accent מִבטָא. It’s like a neon label on your forehead screaming, “I’m not from here!” For those of us who are not adept at incorporating new sounds into our speech, this can make us feel bad: “Ohh, I sound terrible!” Alternatively, we can accept (and maybe even embrace) this “different” aspect of ourselves, telling ourselves something like, “It’s awesome that I’ve learned to speak a second language! Go me!”

Not quite there yet? That’s ok! There’s a surprisingly easy, and perhaps surprising, way to get closer to this place of acceptance and start feeling more comfortable with your conversational Hebrew. What’s the secret סוֹד ? Hangout and talk to little kids ילדים, like three, four or five year olds. These kids who don’t yet know how to read, write or do basic math are indeed the exact people you need to get your Hebrew rolling. With these guys as your teachers, you’ll improve your conversational Hebrew and most likely your accent too, for the following awesome reasons:

1. Little kids are non-judgemental

Speaking to a sabra צָבָּר (native born Israeli) when you have a very strong and noticeable foreign accent can sometimes be quite intimidating. Since you know you sound “different” and you know that they know that you sound “different” there may be so much performance anxiety bubbling in you that it can be difficult to even mutter a single word. It’s not like that with small kids. They may notice your accent but it’s not because they are judging you, thinking in their little heads, “Wow! Her accent is sooo terrible!” No, these innocent beings are still open minded creatures. They are simply being curious סקרן, which leads us to the second reason.

2. Little ones are curious about the present moment

Adults are busy with places to go, people to see and things to do. They barely notice what’s happening around them most of the time. They are just itching to get to the next idea, place or thing. Ever watch a preschooler go for a walk down the street רְחוֹב? In the time it would take an adult to walk one minute, the child will take his or her sweet time, stopping 13 times to admire a leaf, look at a bug, touch a bench, pick up a stick and who knows what else. This is a result of their natural curiosity, which is advantageous for you when you are learning to get comfortable with speaking Hebrew. Rather than be put off by your unfamiliar-to-their-ears accent, kids will simply be curious. These mindful little beings will notice you, stop and want to talk to you even more.

3. They are beginners themselves

Conversing with preschool age kids in Hebrew is so refreshing, simply because they are still learning as well! They make mistakes טעויות! Clearly, with so much for these kids to learn, the last thing they are thinking about are your mistakes. So speak and speak freely without worrying about what the little guys think of you.

4. They won’t answer you back in English

One of the most common gripes among people trying to learn a new language is that people respond to them in their native language. You ask, “How much does this cost?” “?כמה זה עולה” and the storekeeper responds to you in broken English rather than in Hebrew. With kids, this is much less likely to occur because Hebrew speaking kids (those not from bilingual homes) have largely not yet been exposed to a second language. Hebrew is their go-to one and only language. This is great news for you because they will answer you back in Hebrew – regardless of your accent or your mistakes.

A little kid in gan גן (preschool) may be the best Hebrew teacher you’ll ever have! The added value is that these cuties are so adorable that it will be practically impossible for you not to enjoy your lessons!

Tip: How to find young kids if you don’t have any of your own i.e. grandchildren, nieces, nephews, etc.? Try volunteering at a gan or community center that is frequented by little ones. Both of you will benefit!

The Way the Purim Cookie Crumbles

By Tova Horwitz

The holiday of Purim פורים is just around the corner and the festive spirit can already be felt on the streets of Israel. The joyous day celebrates Esther, Mordechai and the Jews’ victory over the evil Haman, and is commemorated today in modern Israel and around the world with a host of fun traditions including giving baskets of food to friends משלוח מנות, having a food and drink filled party סעודה, dressing up in costumes תחפושות, giving charity צדקה, and of course eating special triangular shaped cookies called אוזני המן or hamantaschen.

These cookies, whose name translates to Haman’s ears, are formed in the shape of a triangle (or the shape of Haman’s ears) and are traditionally made out of delicious shortbread or cookie dough pastry and filled with fruit flavored jam, poppy seeds, fig, chocolate, or other delectable fillings. In more recent years, the traditional cookie has been completely revamped resulting in a dizzying debut of mouth watering and inventive flavors and different types of dough.

If this is your first time being in Israel around Purim time, you may be surprised by the sight (and smell) of so many hamantaschen practically everywhere you look – in every supermarket סוּפֶּרמַרקֶט, small grocery מכולת, bakery מַאֲפִיָה, coffee shop בית קפה and eatery. The sheer variety of flavors can be dizzying. To make it a little simpler, here is a breakdown of the varieties that are most popular and which you’ll likely encounter on the streets of Israel this time of year.

The classic flavors, which are probably still the most common and which will satisfy traditionalists, include poppyseed פרג, date תמר, jam ריבה, and fig תאנה. Chocolate שוקולד although perhaps not as traditional as the other flavors, is also a hugely popular hit among both kids and adults, and probably the most loved flavor of all. Other spins on the traditional varieties include various flavors of jam such apricot מִשׁמֵשׁ, raspberry פֶּטֶל, or cherry דוּבדְבָן, as well as chalva חלבה, nutella, and various type of nut fillings. You’ll find these classics sometimes sprinkled with powder sugar and sometimes not.

Other more exotic flavors that can be found at specialty bakeries around the country include varieties or combinations of apple pie פאי תפוחים, white chocolate שוקולד לבן, pistachio פיסטוק, pralines פרלין, dulce de leche ריבת חלב, peanut butter חמאת בוטנים, sweet cheese גבינה מתוקה and even many savory varieties. You will also find hamantaschen made of chocolate pastry as well as dough made with yeast. For the more health conscious, it won’t be hard to find hamantaschen made out of melt in your mouth whole wheat חיטה מלאה flour or spelt כוסמין flour and perhaps filled with slightly healthier dried fruit fillings.

Whether you prefer sweet, savory or something in between, you’ll certainly enjoy tasting the many flavors until you find the perfect Purim cookie that you love. Bon appetit בתאבון!!

What Does A Tree Have To Do With Me?

By Tova Horwitz

Jews around the world are celebrating Tu B’Shvat (ט”ו בִּשְׁבָט), the New Year of the Trees and Fruits, which takes place on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat.

This special holiday is first mentioned in the Talmud, in Tractate Rosh Hashana, where it is written, “The Academy of Hillel taught that the 15th of Shvat is the New Year for the Trees.” Technically, this is the day when trees begin drawing nourishment from their sap in place of absorbing water from the ground. This differentiation was significant in ancient times; according to Jewish law fruit which has blossomed prior to Tu B’Shvat could not be used as tithe for fruit which blossomed after that date.

Today, in modern Israel, Tu B’Shvat marks the symbolic arrival of spring as it is celebrated just as the warmth of summer can be felt and the almond tree blossoms are flowering. People across the country, from young children to senior citizens, celebrate the day by going out into nature, planting trees and enjoying the sweet taste of fruits that are native to Israel, including almonds, dates, figs, carob and raisins. Some also have a custom to hold a Tu B’Shvat seder with songs, blessings and deeper reflections on the symbolism of the fruits.

Interestingly, when we take a closer look at the Hebrew language used in the Torah to describe trees, we can gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of trees, and can even learn something about ourselves!

There are frequent places in the text where man is compared to a tree. For example, “A person is like the tree of a field…” (Deut. 20:19); “For as the days of a tree shall be the days of my people.” (Isaiah 65:22); “He will be like a tree planted near water…” (Jeremiah 17:8). Also, a righteous person (צַדִּיק, tzaddik) is noted as being strong as a tree“ planted by streams of water, producing fruit in its season, whose leaf does not wither. And he will prosper in all that he does” (Psalms 1:3). In another instance it reads, “The righteous shall flourish like the palm-tree; grow mighty like a cedar in Lebanon,” (Psalms 92:13).

Also, the Hebrew words used to describe both trees and people are the same: צְמִיחָה (tzmicha, growth), הִתְפַּתְּחוּת (hitpat’chut, development), פְּרִיחָה (pricha, bloom), קְמִילָה (kimeela, withering). Clearly, the relationship between humans and trees is significant!

What can we make of this?

On a physical level, we can view a tree in a new light; not only as something that provides us with food, shade, wood, sap, beauty, clean air and so many other things, but as a divine miracle in its own right. We can commit ourselves on Tu B’Shvat to taking better care of trees and all of nature.

From a spiritual perspective, Tu B’shvat is also the ideal opportunity to recognize that we humans are similar to trees. Trees require sunshine, air and water to grow. Additionally, trees which have roots that are deeply rooted in the soil, and branches that are flexible in the wind will thrive and be strong and beautiful. People, too, need the appropriate physical and spiritual nourishment. To thrive and reach our potential, people need to cultivate both strong roots – connections to family, community, values and heritage – as well as learn to be pliable when handling the winds of change, stress and the ups and down of life. As we say in Israel, it’s a skill and an advantage לִזְרוֹם (to go with the flow)!

This Tu B’Shvat, may the trees be blessed to be strong and healthy and may we be blessed to be like trees!

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